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The Shell Seekers

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The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

This is one of those “oldie but goodie” types of books that I never got around to reading when it was first published 27 years ago.  I’m glad I finally got the chance to read it in September.

Penelope Keeling is the aging main character, who spends part of the novel reflecting back on her life during World War II in Cornwall.  She marries Ambrose Keeling, whom she doesn’t love, and when Ambrose is sent off to war, begins an affair with Richard, a British naval officer.

At the outset of the novel, Penelope struggles with her three adult children – two of which only seem interested in her for her assets – mainly paintings by her father that have suddenly become popular at auction.

I’m always a sucker for a storyline about art, and the conflict of monetary versus sentimental value.  For me, this made the novel well worth reading.  I also enjoy historical fiction, and while Pilcher didn’t go into as much detail as I would have liked, I did appreciate Penelope’s reminiscences of World War II.  I also enjoyed the descriptions of the Cornwall countryside, the ocean and Penelope’s cottage and gardens.

I find it interesting that the values of the 1980’s came through loud and clear in this book.  No hang-ups about sex or extra-marital affairs.  It’s very typical of novels written at that time, but seem somewhat shocking to read about those attitudes today.  While the author does try to explain that Penelope and her parents lived a bohemian lifestyle, I still doubt that family values would have taken a backseat during the 1940’s.  Still, it was a fun read, and I needed some lightness after immersing myself in classics.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1987
582 pages

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The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani

What a marvelous storyteller Adriana Trigiani is!  Just when I needed a good, pull-me-in kind of book, I sat down to read The Shoemaker’s Wife and fell in love with the characters of Enza and Ciro.

The novel begins when the two are teenagers in Italy following the first World War.  Enza is the 15 year old daughter of a large family who has just buried a younger daughter.  Ciro is a slightly older boy, growing up in a convent following the death of his father.  They connect, kiss, and seem destined to be together.  Then Ciro gets sent to America and Enza is bewildered at his sudden departure without even a word to her.

It’s a story of the immigrant experience, of hard work and about the meaning of true love.  Trigiani does a wonderful job researching the lives of Italian immigrants, and her characters are well-developed and charming.  Loved this book!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2012
496 pages

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The House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth

Little did I suspect that a 19th century author held the capacity to tug at my heart!  By the time I neared the end of Wharton’s tragic social commentary entitled The House of Mirth, I had used half a box of kleenexes sobbing over the fate of Lily Bart.

The heroine is a young woman who is accepted by New York society, but is poor by comparison.  An orphan, Lily Bart makes it her goal in life to snag a wealthy man (in marriage, of course) to help her live in the style she aspires to.  Poor Lily makes one mistake after another, and despite her good intentions, she must pay the price.

I couldn’t help but compare Wharton’s writing to Jane Austen.  Both were adept at social commentary and creating characters and story lines that drew their readers in.  Unlike Austen, however, Wharton has no qualms about forgoing the happy ending for a more shocking and tragic course.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1905
351 pages

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The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

The Aviator's Wife

How much do you know about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh?  In this work of historical fiction, Melanie Benjamin seeks to unfold the drama of this famous woman’s life and give the reader a glimpse of a woman who showed amazing courage and resilience during her turbulent life.

While I enjoyed the book, it might disappoint historical fiction purists.  Benjamin was going for the emotional effect here, and not historical accuracy.  This probably gives it more broad appeal, but for me lowered it to the ranks of a “beach read.”

*Spoiler Alert*
Don’t read any further if you don’t know much about the Lindbergh family.  If you already know the story, read on!

When I began reading, I already knew about Lindbergh, his famous flight to Paris, and his antisemitic, pro-Nazi sympathies during World War II.  Of course, I also knew about the famous kidnapping/murder case of his first-born son.  What I didn’t know, was that Lindbergh was a philanderer who fathered seven illegitimate children.  But this novel, while revealing the real Charles Lindbergh, also serves to lift up his wife Anne.  She didn’t fit the mold of the typical 1930’s newlywed.  She was an aviatrix herself, a college graduate, an accomplished author, and she managed to keep up a household for 5 living children and a husband who rarely graced her doorstep.  All this she did in the midst of terrible losses and a complete lack of privacy.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh was very impressive lady indeed.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
402 pages

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The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman In White

Once hailed as “great trash” by literary critic Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Woman in White became a favorite with readers not just in 1860, when it was published, but for more than one hundred years to follow.

The novel opens with a narration by the character Walter Hartright.  He is a drawing teacher, hired to instruct Miss Laura Fairlie and her friend, Marian Halcombe.  As Hartright’s tale unfolds, we learn that Miss Fairlie is to be married to Sir Percival Glyde, but receives a ominous letter warning her not to go ahead with the marriage.

I wasn’t aware that this novel was one of the earliest mysteries published.  It gives one a great appreciation for the methods Collins uses to create suspense.  He does this by dividing the novel, not just into chapters, but through the use of different narrators.  Each storyteller gives the reader a different perspective on the characters and the events.

Who was the woman in white?  Why does Anne Catherick warn Laura Fairlie against marrying Sir Percival Glyde? Is Marian Halcombe able to help her dear friend?

All of these questions and more are answered in the pages of The Woman in White.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1860
672 pages

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Tai-Pan by James Clavell

Tai Pan

Tai-Pan is the second novel in James Clavell’s Asian Saga series, but it’s definitely not a sequel to Shogun.  Rest assured, however, that Tai-Pan is every bit a page-turner as the former novel, and I have to admit, I liked Tai-Pan even better.

The novel takes place in the early nineteenth century, when Hong Kong has just become part of the British Empire.  English traders, including Dirk Struan (the Tai-Pan of Noble House) gamble with the future of Chinese/English trade in the midst of political upheaval in their British homeland and in China itself.

Clavell truly outdid himself with the plot development of Tai-PanI especially enjoyed the intrigue and romantic similarities to Romeo and Juliet with warring houses and ill-fated love.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1983
732 pages

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